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3 Spelling and hyphenation

3.4 Word division

3.4.1 General principles

Words can be divided between lines of printing to avoid unacceptably wide spaces between words (in justified setting) or at the end of a line (in unjustified setting). The narrower the column, the more necessary this becomes. Some divisions are better than others, and some are unacceptable because they may mislead or confuse the reader. Rules governing division are based on a combination of a word’s construction (i.e. the parts from which it is formed) and its pronunciation, since exclusive reliance on either can yield unfortunate results. The following offers general guidance only; for individual cases, consult the New Oxford Spelling Dictionary. See also 2.5.2 for a discussion of the general principles of page layout and proofreading. For word division in foreign languages, see Chapter 12, under the languages concerned.

A hyphen is added where a word is divided at the end of a line. This is known as a soft hyphen or discretionary hyphen:

  • con-

  • trary

If a word with a hard hyphen is divided after its permanent (keyed) hyphen, no further hyphen is added:

  • well-

  • developed

In most texts the hyphens in the examples above (con-trary and well-developed) will use the same symbol (-). Sometimes, as in dictionaries or other reference works in which it is important for the reader to know whether an end-of-line hyphen is a permanent one or not, a different symbol, such as -, is used when words are divided:
  • con-

  • trary

A tilde (~) is also occasionally used:

  • con~

  • trary

In copy to be keyed, add a ‘close up’ mark (see Appendix Proofreading marks) to any permanent (hard) hyphen that falls at the end of a line, to indicate that it must be typed and set close to the next word. A stet mark (from Latin, ‘let it stand’) was formerly used, marked as three dots under the character.

3.4.2 Principles of word division

The main principle governing the guidelines that follow is that the word division should be as unobtrusive as possible, so that the reader continues reading without faltering or momentary confusion. All word divisions should correspond as closely as possible to a syllable division:



However, syllable division will not be satisfactory if the result is that the first part is misleading on its own and the second part is not a complete recognizable suffix. For example, do not divide abases, as neither aba-ses nor abas-es are acceptable.

An acceptable division between two parts of one word may be unacceptable when applied to the same form with a suffix or prefix: help-ful is perfectly acceptable, but unhelp-ful is not as good as un-helpful.

The New Oxford Spelling Dictionary therefore uses two levels of word division—‘preferred’ divisions (marked |), which are acceptable under almost any circumstances, and ‘permitted’ divisions (marked ¦), which are not as good, given a choice. Thus unhelpful is shown as un|help¦ful.

The acceptability of a division depends to a considerable extent on the appearance of each part of the word, balanced against the appearance of the spacing in the text. For instance, even a division that is neither obtrusive nor misleading, such as con-tact, may be possible but quite unnecessary at the end of a long line of type, whereas a poorer division, such as musc-ling, may be necessary in order to avoid excessively wide word spaces in a narrow line. In justified setting, word spaces should not be so wide that they appear larger than the space between lines of type.

Whether the best word division follows the construction or the pronunciation depends partly on how familiar the word is and how clearly it is thought of in terms of its constituent parts. For instance, atmosphere is so familiar that its construction is subordinated to its pronunciation, and so it is divided atmos-phere, but the less familiar hydrosphere is divided between its two word-formation elements: hydro-sphere.

3.4.3 Special rules

Do not divide words of one syllable:




Do not leave only one letter at the end of a line:

  • aground (not a-ground)

Avoid dividing in such a way that fewer than three letters are left at the start of a line:

  • Briton (not Brit-on)

  • rubbishy (not rubbish-y)

However, two letters are acceptable at the start of a line if they form a complete, recognizable suffix or other element:





Nearly all words with fewer than six letters should therefore never be divided:





Divide words according to their construction where it is obvious, for example:

  • • between the elements of a compound word:



  • • between the root word and a prefix or suffix:



except where such a division would be severely at odds with the pronunciation:

dem-ocracy (not demo-cracy)

chil-dren (not child-ren)

archaeo-logical but archae-ologist

psycho-metric but psych-ometry

human-ism but criti-cism

neo-classical but neolo-gism

When the construction of a word is no help, divide it after a vowel, preferably an unstressed one:




or between two consonants or two vowels that are pronounced separately:




Divide after double consonants if they form the end of a recognizable element of a word:



but otherwise divide between them:





Words ending in -le, and their inflections, are best not divided, but the last four letters can be carried over if necessary:



With the present participles of these verbs, divide the word after the consonant preceding the l:



or between two identical preceding consonants:
  • puz-zling

Divide most gerunds and present participles at -ing:




Avoid divisions that might affect the sound, confuse the meaning, or merely look odd:

exact-ing (not ex-acting)

co-alesce (not coal-esce)

le-gend (not leg-end)

lun-ging (not lung-ing)

re-appear (not reap-pear)

re-adjust (not read-just)

Words that cannot be divided at all without an odd effect should be left undivided:

  • breeches  cliquey  preaches  sluicing

Hyphenated words are best divided only at an existing hard hyphen but can, if necessary, be divided a minimum of six letters after it:
  • counter-revolution~

  • ary

Even where no hyphen is involved, certain constraints must be observed on line breaks:

  • • Divide abbreviations and dates only after a hard hyphen or an en rule:

    • UNESCO

    • AFL-|CIO

    • 1914–|18

  • • Numbers should not be divided, even at a decimal point: 643.368491. However, very large numbers containing commas may be divided (but not hyphenated) after a comma, though not after a single digit: 6,493,|000,000. They cannot be divided at the same places if written with spaces instead of commas: 6 493 000 000.

  • • Do not separate numbers from their abbreviated units:

    15 kg

    300 bc

  • • If possible, do not separate a person’s initials from their surname, and do not split two initials; a single initial should certainly not be separated from the surname.

  • • Do not separate a name from a following modifier:

    Louis XIV

    Samuel Browne, Jr.

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New Hart's Rules


Preface Editorial team Proofreading marks Glossary of printing and publishing terms